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David Kihara

Vegas Ad Campaign May Not Mean Success with Foreign Tourists

4 January 2005

The award-winning slogan "What happens here, stays here" has been one of the most effective ad campaigns in bringing American visitors to Las Vegas, yet it may leave some international tourists scratching their heads in confusion.

That's the assessment of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, the organization that is responsible for pushing the slogan domestically.

Although the now-famous catch-phrase has won two awards this year -- the 2004 Odyssey Award from the Washington D.C.-based Travel Industry Association and the Grand Marketer of the Year award from Brandweek magazine -- it is still not used anywhere outside the United States.

"We need to educate international tourists before we get to the branding or experience of Las Vegas because if they don't know what Las Vegas stands for it will fall on deaf ears," said Terry Jicinsky, senior vice president of marketing for the LVCVA.

Just as important, the LVCVA doesn't want to unintentionally offend potential tourists with a slogan that might not translate well into another culture, especially in more conservative-leaning Asian countries, Jicinsky said.

In Tokyo, for example, the LVCVA has a local representative, Kyosuke Okada of Okada Associates, working with Japanese tour operators to bring tourists to Las Vegas. The LVCVA tried out the "What happens here, stays here," slogan on Okada, but the representative told the LVCVA, "it does not translate into an appropriate message," Jicinsky said recently.

Which brings up the question: Just what does "What happens here, stays here" mean to the Japanese?

"It is a little negative, because the reputation of Las Vegas is that you visit prostitutes in Las Vegas," said Tomoko Tashiro, an instructor of Japanese language at UNLV's foreign language department. "It means you can do anything, do any behavior in Las Vegas and just don't care."

As a resident of Las Vegas for 7 years and the United States for 13, Tashiro said that the Japanese meaning of the of the slogan, "sounds rude for Las Vegas residents, even for me."

Japan is not the only country where the slogan might not translate into what the LVCVA intended.

Although the LVCVA doesn't use the jingle in Japan because of the "sensitive" nature of what it could mean, the slogan in many western European countries would have the opposite effect, said David Sporn, the head of Bonotel Exclusive Travel, an international travel agency that promotes Las Vegas abroad for the MGM Mirage.

Sporn, a native of Germany, said that the catchphrase probably would fall flat in Germany, France or England because many western European countries have a much more liberal, progressive view of sex than America.

For example, France has topless beaches while television networks in the U.K. routinely show frontal nudity during late night broadcasts. Plus, there are cities like Amsterdam where marijuana use is decriminalized and prostitution is regulated and legal.

"The U.S. in general has a puritanical reputation in Europe, and even though Las Vegas is the most non-puritanical place in the U.S. it is still not liberal" by European standards, he said. "So a topless show in Las Vegas does not attract Europeans because it is no big deal."

"Las Vegas is trying to break sexual taboos, but not for European audiences," he said.

Ultimately, what attracts European tourists to Las Vegas is the same thing that brings Asians flocking to Las Vegas -- the shopping venues, world-class hotels and restaurants and entertainment choices, said both Sporn and Jicinsky.

It is for this reason that the LVCVA avoids selling Las Vegas abroad as an "experience" but advertises the locale as a "product" where tourists can gamble, see the Grand Canyon, shop in the malls, and see a show, Jicinsky said.

"In Japan, people wouldn't necessarily know the difference between the Strip or downtown, so we need to educate them about everything Las Vegas as a destination has to offer," Jicinsky said.

So the slogan used by the LVCVA abroad to promote Las Vegas? "Las Vegas is the entertainment capital of the world," said Jicinsky.

Recently, a record number of tourists have poured into Las Vegas, according to the LVCVA, with 3,333,000 people coming into the city in October. The prior record was set in March 2001, when 3,301,000 tourists visited Las Vegas.

The LVCVA predicts that 2004 overall will be a record-breaking year for tourism, with an estimated 37 million visitors coming to Las Vegas Valley.

Yet the numbers of foreign visitors is still lagging behind what it once was, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Commerce, Office of Travel & Tourism Industries.

The most recent detailed Commerce statistics from 2003 show that a total of 2,493,000 international tourists came to Las Vegas, which is down from the previous five years. In 2000, a total of 4,014,000 international visitors came to Las Vegas, and 3,896,000 came in 1999.

The biggest decrease in international tourists in recent years came from Japan. In 2000, a total of 511,000 Japanese reportedly came to the city, yet after the Sept. 11 attacks, the war in Afghanistan and Iraq and global safety concerns, the number had dropped significantly.

In 2001, 282,000 Japanese visited Las Vegas -- a 44 percent decrease from the previous year. The number continued to drop, with 192,000 coming in 2002 and 168,000 visiting in 2003.

Many other countries, such as Germany, France, Taiwan and Brazil also saw drops after 2000, according to the Commerce Department.

But things are looking up for international visitors, with security concerns decreasing, the war in Iraq moving further and further from people's minds and especially the devaluation of the dollar, said John Piet, senior research analyst for the LVCVA said last week.

"We are slowly seeing a comeback," he said.

General Commerce department statistics from the International Trade Administration show that international tourists are coming to the United States in higher numbers than in previous years, with a total of 29.1 million international tourists coming to America during the first eight months of the year -- a 13 percent increase over the same time last year.

The Commerce Department did not break down where those international tourists traveled to once in the United States.

One of those tourists was Angela Hingston, who was staying at the Luxor Hotel and Casino Christmas week.

Hingston, in her mid-50s and from London, came to Las Vegas with her husband and several friends. She said she had visited Las Vegas before, and even though she doesn't gamble, she enjoyed the restaurants and "people watching."

"This is the most outrageous place for people watching," she said.

Not surprisingly, she had never heard that "what happens here, stays here," and didn't have an opinion on the slogan.

"Las Vegas is a place that is just over the top," Hingston said, when asked what sort of reputation Las Vegas has abroad. "It's the adult Disneyland."